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High Summer and Pan Traps

Summer Camp at dusk.

This past week I went to the Zumwalt with Dr. DeBano, Scott and James. We worked on the final sets of pan traps, plant sampling, and some minor soil sampling. On Friday, I joined Dr. DeBano and Scott at Starkey, where I helped Dr. DeBano with plant sampling while Scott hand netted bees and identified willows. 

Scott and James setting out pan traps.

We arrived at Summer Camp around 3pm on Monday.  Thankfully, the weather felt more like September than high summer, as temperatures hovered around 75 to 80 the entire week! While the breeze was occasionally stale, it felt like a gift compared to the previous summer. After getting settled at camp we began setting out pan traps. The pan traps are placed along the backbone of each transect, and are collected after 48 hours.  The traps are small containers painted with either yellow, white, or blue fluorescent paint and are filled with soapy water. We set out 10 sets of the 30 traps on the first day. 

On Tuesday, I partnered up with Dr. DeBano on plant sampling and quadrants.  I was the scribe, and as such got to record the various types and amounts of blooming plants found along each transect. It is the same data I have been entering for the last few weeks with Kaylee. I actually found it really enjoyable, since it helped reinforce my plant identification, and well…I like flowers. It was also interesting to see the difference between grazed and ungrazed sites, or burned and unburned sites. Most of what’s blooming is still Achillea millefolium, Pieride gardenii, and Erigeron corymbosus. 

Dr. DeBano working on quadrants.

As for the quadrant work I recorded the percentage of grass, bare ground, biological soil crust, feces, rock, or forbs within each sample.  The goal is to have the total equal to 100%. For instance, a sample could comprise of 25% forbs, 25% bare ground, and 50% grass. Dr. DeBano makes the estimates on all quadrants and transect sampling to avoid any bias. The quadrant is thrown about a meter from each whisker on the same transects we collect all the other data on. She avoids looking at where she throws the quadrant, so that she can eliminate any further bias.  

On Tuesday Scott and James witnessed quite the predator prey interaction. They described seeing a massive herd of elk near Harsin Butte acting strangely. The elk began panicking, bugling and separating. Scott and James then said they saw several canine figures below the herd. They’re fairly certain, due to the size and behavior of all parities involved, that they were watching a pack of wolves. Jealous is an understatement.

Duckett Barn

On Wednesday, Scott and I drove to The Nature Conservancy office in Enterprise to pick up a spare penetrometer.  We then went out to a few sites and measured soil compaction on obvious cow trails, then one and two meters off the trails.  We also measured soil compaction on Patti’s trail; which is a popular hiking trail near Harsin Butte. Scott was curious to see if there were any patterns from foot, and hoof, traffic at the sites. Around 3pm we then worked on collecting Monday’s pan traps.  We did however, get side tracked when we saw a large plume of smoke on the horizon. We drove up to Monument to get a better vantage point of the fire and to get cell service to call in the brush fire. Shortly after, we noticed a large amount of smoke coming from the Wallowa Mountains.  The larger fire near the mountains turned out to be the Granite Gulch Fire near Union. I went hiking Sunday in the Eagle Cap Wilderness and saw a large fire pop off within a drainage. Low and behold, it was the Granite Gulch Fire. I live about 10 miles from the 2,000+ acre fire, and it’s been exciting to see it transform over the last few days. 

Sunset on the hill above Summer Camp.

Since the fire frenzy set us back at least a hour, Scott and I had to work until we could no longer see.  It’s important to keep the data uniform, and so we needed to collect the last two sites of pan traps. Unfortunately, we ran out of time and had to give up on the last sets.  We decided to retrieve them early the next morning and just made note of the added two hours of daylight. We did, however, get to see another phenomenal sunset while looking for the little pink and yellow whiskers hidden between all the bunchgrass. The clouds once again transformed from a cool gray, to magenta, to a soft violet. 

This past week I also decided to camp in the field behind Summer Camp.  The last several field trips I’ve opted to sleep inside the Doctor’s Cabin as it was pretty hot out and the whole house was available. I’m honestly a little embarrassed to admit that the sound of coyotes yapping generally sends shivers down my spine.  But since reading more about them in my free time this summer (thanks Dan Flores), and just generally seeing them more since working on the prairie, I’ve become more tolerant of the sound. It was finally enjoyable, or at least comforting to hear their sounds from all directions while I was going to sleep. It served as a reminder that I’m sharing this space.  The cackling coyotes have transitioned from a warning sign to one of comfort: in that it tells me the prairie is a thriving, healthy habitat. 

The next two days we worked on picking up the remaining pan traps, and then picking up all the whiskers and flagging from the field season. This upcoming week I will be joining Scott on Tuesday and Wednesday on the Zumwalt, where we will be working with the emergence traps. The rest of the week will be spent working on data entry back in La Grande.  

Endless Data Entry

Zumwalt in June
Harsin Butte from the Salt Road. The hike to the top gives incredible views of the Seven Devils and Wallowa Mountains.

Not much new to share as I spent this past week in La Grande and worked on data entry. I spent part of the week inputting data at home, and the other part of the week working with Kaylee at EOU. We’re currently working on transferring all the hard copies to digital spreadsheets. Our focus right now is to transfer all the transect data and plant sampling. Each site at Starkey and on the Zumwalt gets recorded onto paper, is then counted, then recounted by somebody else for quality control, then entered into a spreadsheet, then recounted, and is finally ready for use.

Working with data sheets has reinforced the importance of spelling, clean handwriting, organization, and patience. Spelling and legible handwriting is crucial because it means the difference between inputting the wrong species or number. Organization is also important because if you aren’t careful you could easily mix up data within months, sites, or even years. And patience is imperative because it gives you clarity and focus. It’s tedious work, and even once I get into the rhythm of it I still need to take lots of visual breaks. I’m not sure if everyone else struggles, but my eyes get sore easily and begin to play tricks on me. For instance, 575 ends up reading as 557. So, I’m trying to double check as best I can, and to be kind with myself.

I will say that the data entry has helped with pronunciation and spelling of all the various species. We’ve also already noticed many of the plants occur at every, or most sites. Achillea millefolium seems to be a stable for each transect. It’s also interesting to see many of the plants go into bloom. For example, Geranium viscosissimum (sticky geranium) seemed to rapidly increase by the end of June. We also noticed the wide variance in species richness from Starkey verses the Zumwalt. In the grand scheme of things the two areas are relatively close in proximity, but so vastly different in diversity!

I will be back on the Zumwalt this week with Dr. DeBano, Scott, and James. We should be back in town Thursday evening, and I will be joining Scott in Starkey Friday. Since, I didn’t take any glamorous photos of data sheets or Excel, I’ve decided to post a few more flowers that are common on the prairie.

Scientific name: Castilleja, Family: Scrophulariaceae, common name: paintbrush
Scientific name: Tragopogon spp., Family: Asteraceae, common name: salsify
Scientific name: Cirsium brevifolium, Family: Asteraceae, common name: Palouse thistle
Scientific name: Ventanata dubia, Family: Poaceae, common name: ventanata, African grass
Scientific name: Delphinium bicolor, Family: Ranunculaceae, common name: little larkspur

Soil, Soil, Soil

This past week I went back to the Zumwalt to finish up soil sampling with Scott and Kaylee. One of the work vehicles broke down near Meacham, so the other crew borrowed the Suburban that we normally take into the field (the same one that had a flat tire the previous week). Thankfully, Dr. Morris (La Grande campus) let us borrow one of her trucks for the week.  It is an older manual, three seater truck; which her crew has affectionately knick named Lurch. Scott then met Kaylee and me in La Grande in our crew’s Impala. Because I have limited experience with manual transmission I opted to drive the Impala out to the prairie. And since the Impala has minimal ground clearance we only drive it up to summer camp. So, the rest of the time was spent squeezed into Lurch.

Scott checking on the contents of one of the emergence traps.

After we set up camp and got settled into the new (to us) truck we began finishing up all the soil sampling at the remaining plant transects, and then went to the emergence traps. From the outside, the emergence traps look like miniature tents with a wire casing.  But they are actually used to collect data about ground nesting bees and other various invertebrates. The traps are set out each spring and then collected near the fall. They are all in the same vicinity, but spaced 90 meters apart. Inside each of the traps are two plastic containers used to trap the insects, with one of the containers full of alcohol. In total there are 40 traps, and 38 of them were set out on the prairie this spring, as two of them were unrepairable. 

Carcass beetles found within one of the emergence traps. We were unable to collect any data from this trap.

This is also the second year Dr. DeBano has used the emergence traps, so the project is still in the early stages.  Scott stated that they weren’t especially successful with the data collected last year. Unfortunately, this year seems to be even less fruitful.  Of the 38 traps installed on the prairie we’ve already had about 15 destroyed by cattle so far. The cattle are a different breed than last year, and have been especially curious. The cattle gnaw on the wire and inevitably get their horns stuck. I’ve seen the wire casing thrown meters from the trap. Some of the actual fabric has been torn as well.  The cattle have also tried to consume the plastic whiskers used at the plant transects. While frustrating, at least the lost or moved whiskers are cheaper and easier to replace than the emergence traps.  Scott has spent countless hours constructing and repairing the emergence traps, so I do feel bad that he is seeing little reward for his efforts. In addition to curious cattle, some of the traps were also infested with carcass beetles or various plants.  The carcass beetles feast on the other insects, and thus make the data useless. And because the traps act as tiny green houses, they become a heaven for various grasses and forbs. These plants then crowd out the trap and non of the insects are captured in the traps.

Contents from one of the emergence traps.
Bumble bee in the morning.

Despite the setbacks, there was still a lot to learn. For instance, the traps are surrounded by a wire shell, and are then held in place with T posts. The traps that were rectangular seemed significantly less sturdy than the prism shapes. I’m not sure if this is from the change in shape, or change in material, but whatever it was it kept the cows at bay. The traps are also set out where Heidi Schmalz did a research project for her thesis a few years ago.  She worked on classifying the various soil types on the prairie, so our data collected over the last few weeks was used in part to recreate her study. Unlike the plant transects locations, where we purposely collected VWC and soil compaction a few meters from the whiskers, we collected data from within the emergence traps. This is so that we could get data for the exact location.  

The Milky Way from Summer Camp. Photo taken by Scott Mitchell.

The prairie continues to change each week as well.  While this past trip was exceptionally hot and dry, it was still considerably cooler than a year ago.  And as for biomass, all that seemed left was mostly yarrow, crispy buckwheat, and ventenata. We did see many more deer, elk, and birds of prey. And the coyotes were vocal as ever. There’s also still many bees roaming the prairie, and it’s quite fun to see them still gorging on the remaining forbs. I realized that I moved to Oregon one year ago this week. It feels like a far cry from western Washington, let alone Florida. It is truly special that I get to live and work in such a unique place. I’m also currently reading American Serengeti by Dan Flores, and his portrayal of grasslands is only helping to increase my admiration for the landscape and animals that inhabit it. This next week I will be doing data entry with Kaylee, and will then be joining Scott at Starkey and possibly the Umatilla River for willow identification. 

Harsin Butte and Findley Butte. Harsin caps out around 5,000 feet and offers incredible views of the Seven Devils and Wallowa Mountains.

Flat Tires and Bounding Badgers

Team building 101

This past week I stayed on the Zumwalt with Scott and Kaylee to work on soil sampling.  And let me just say, we had quite a roller coaster ride. We left La Grande around 9AM on Tuesday and arrived at Summer Camp sometime before noon. We stopped at camp to unload all of our gear before heading out to the field sites, and it was then that I noticed we had a flat of all flats.  We, mostly Scott, then worked on putting the spare on during the heat of the day. After we got the Suburban back in working order we all agreed it would be best to drive back to Enterprise and get the old tire patched up. The Zumwalt is comprised of dirt roads for miles and is full of notoriously bad pot holes, jagged rocks, and rivets.  In addition, we frequently traverse the Salt Road, which is more of a riveted trail than a road that’s only driven during the field season. As such, we decided we didn’t want to get an additional flat tire deeper into the preserve. So, we drove to the closest Les Schwabb and Scott called Dr. DeBano. She then decided we should get all new tires and an alignment. We then walked around bustling Enterprise, and stopped at a local restaurant while we waited for the mechanics to finish.  

Sunset from Monument

When we finally got back to the prairie we decided to get at least one site completed.  Somebody way up above must have felt our frustration because we then got to see one of the most glorious sunsets I’ve seen (and I’m a Florida native).  A large storm began rolling in, and I’m sure we all thought the universe was going to continue its gruel joke and rain on us. But instead, the storm broke apart and then the entire Zumwalt was bathed in warm orange light while sunbeams showered the hills.  The dark blue clouds contrasted with the warm grass. Eventually, the orange sky turned purple and magenta on the horizon and eventually a cool blue overtook the prairie. The Seven Devil Mountains then emerged from a storm and the bright rock contrasted perfectly against the dark storm clouds. All the while we were working next to a Graze site, so I got to admire the most picturesque cattle.  After we completed the sampling we decided to go up to Monument to get a better view. Monument are two large man made cairns. TNC speculates that they were made by ranchers generations ago as a directional marker. As such, you can see Monument from most of the prairie, and vice versa. Later that night we all sat outside to star gaze.  The cross in the Milky Way was visible, and it was nice to watch for shooting stars. While cliche, feeling so small is always grounding.  

Cow calf pair near Monument.
Kaylee tampering with the Penetrometer while Scott counts the strikes and I record the data.

The next day we got up early and hit the ground running around 7:30 AM.  Our goal was to complete soil sampling at about 20 sites for the week. The only tools we took out were a HydroSense II and a Penetrometer.  The HydroSense II looks more like a stud finder with two metal prongs attached. You stick it into the ground and it then reads back the VMC, volumetric water content percentage, and conduction. The Penetrometer is a large metal pole with a 5-10lb weight that you slam into the ground.  The bottom on the pole has 4 markings on it that indicate 5cm increments. You drop the weight and count how many times it takes to go 5 cms, culminating in a 20cm reading. The point of the task is to record how compact the soil is, so the most strikes it takes the more compact the soil. Our guide tool for the HydroSense II broke at the first site, so we all agreed that Scott would be in charge of the readings for the remaining sites.  Since the reader is an extremely expensive piece of equipment we didn’t want to be responsible for its downfall. As such to break up the task Kaylee and I took turns between tampering the soil and being a scribe. Of course, I ended up getting my finger caught between the metal and sliced my finger open. After a few explicitis were yelled I got bandged up and went back to work. 

Bumble bee enjoying vetch near Duckett Barn.

The data collected will be used to compare soil characteristics between sites.  For instance, it seemed like the old fields were rockier and more compact than native fields.  It is speculated that this is because these fields were once cultivated and have had no restoration efforts.  Scott said that he thinks those sites haven’t been plowed since the 1950s, which makes it’s impressive that the soil is still so compact after 70 years.  Prairies and deserts are notoriously unforgiving when it comes to soil disturbance, so I wasn’t especially surprised. In parts of Oregon you can still see sheep trails in the hills from decades ago. We also didn’t see much rhyme or reason to the moisture content and conduction though.  For instance, we would get a reading of around 7% and then 13 feet down the transect would get 30%.  We did take all of our readings on the transects that are used for pan traps and frequency data. We made sure to be within a meter of the markers, but not directly on them.  Since people frequent those transects it might create biased data if you take readings directly on the whiskers. 

Butterflies enjoying some rabbitbrush.
Bumble Bee gorging on Palouse thistle.

On our last day we ended up near Duckett Barn.  There is a field of veetch near the barn, and I have never seen so many bumble bees! We stopped for about 10 to 15 minutes and just admired them, and snapped photographs of the charismatic insects. While it was bittersweet to see a nonnative plant creep into the prairie, it was fascinating to watch all the bees. My personal highlight, however, happened on our way out of the preserve.  As we were driving we saw a badger cross the road! I’m pretty sure I started smacking Kaylee and talking gibberish. The badger then crossed the road and started bounding through the next field. We see badger holes all over the Zumwalt, but I have yet to see one in the wild. I was as elated as I was when I saw the wolf. I’m so grateful I get to work with Dr. DeBano on pollinators, but I seem to lose total control when it comes to Mustelids and Sciuridaes.  A career goal of mine is to work with Black Footed Ferrets. But first, I need to perfect my volume control.

Red and black Angus on the Zumwalt.

Despite the flat tire, smashed finger, and sore ankles I feel like we had a very productive week.  Considering the setbacks I’m impressed we still completed 21 sites. We will be going back to the Zumwalt next week to finish our soil work. Dr. DeBano will also be joining us so we might assist with her data as well.  I’m becoming more familiar with the layout of the prairie, and it’s fun to see it transition each trip. The awe of the Zumwalt has yet to warn off of me. I’ve worked a variety of jobs, but I suspect that this internship will feel special for a long while.

Wild Data

Large storm rolling over the Seven Devils and Wallowa Mountains

This past week was spent between Hermiston and my own house in Union.  Dr. DeBano, Katie, and Scott all traveled down to Davis, California for a conference, while James and I stayed at the lab in Hermiston. I worked on pinning more bees until Wednesday as James worked on prepping for the next field week.  I then went home with a binder full of data sheets that need to be checked, and eventually met up with Kaylee, a fellow BES intern, at the library to work on spreadsheets.  

Admittedly, the hardest part about this whole internship is being away from my boyfriend and pets for most of the week.  I previously worked as a FF/EMT for a few years, so while I’m no stranger to being away, I do get home sick.  Additionally, I recently moved to a century farm in Union, and I found out one of my pet chickens passed away while I was last on the Zumwalt.  Since my personal life has felt a little hectic, I was relieved when Dr. DeBano said I could do data entry from home.  I’m happy to say I feel recharged and I’m eager to spend the next two weeks out in the field.

QA/QC for loads of data sheets.

As far as pinning bees goes, I feel like I’ve improved quite a bit.  I still struggle with the extremely small bees, but I’m getting there.  Dr. DeBano checks in with me one on one at least once a week while I’m in Hermiston. This week she and I watched a few tutorial videos (thanks Youtube!) on pinning bees.  I slowed down even more with the little bees and tried to really steady my hands. Hopefully, my shift in technique showed. It’s important to keep the specimens uniform for identification and presentation. Regardless of the destination, you should want your specimens to be museum quality. Plus, if you just glue a wing to the pin it could easily fall off. The whole process actually feels pretty Zen once I get into a rhythm too.  I’ve decided to approach quality control and data sheets with the same mindset as pinning. While the work can get momentous, it is important and once I get situated I can work at it for hours. 

Scott, Kaylee, and I will be going out to the Zumwalt for the next two weeks to work on soil sampling. I know next to nothing about soil, so I’m actually pretty excited to get some hands on experience. It will also be nice to break up the routine of hand netting one week and pinning the next.  When I’m back in the lab in August I hope to get quality photos of some of the most common bees, and some of the pesky flies that look so similar, that I’ve been pinning and create a similar post to the plant identification. 

As promised, here’s a few more common plants found on the Zumwalt Prairie:

Scientific name: Zigadenus venenosus, Family: Liliaceae, common name: death camas
Scientific name: Geum triflorum, Family: Rosacea, common name: old man’s whiskers
Scientific name: Arnica sororia, Family: Asteraceae, common name: twin arnica
Scientific name: Calochortus eurycarpus, Family: Liliaceae, common name: Wing-fruited mariposa lily
Scientific name: Orthocarpus tenuifolius, Family: Scrophulariaceae, common name: Thin-leaved owl’s clover
Scientific name: Potentilla gracilis, Family: Rosaceae, common name: slender cinquefoil
Scientific name: Trifolium pretense, Family: Fabaceae, common name: Red clover

Zumwalt, Forbs, and Crickets

This past week I went back to the Zumwalt to assist with more field work.  I accompanied Katie for her last days of field work, in which we collected more bees with the hand nets.  This week, however, proved to be a little more difficult than the first as much of the prairie had begun to turn brown.  We also faced the challenge of high winds, storms, and grazing cattle at some of the sites.  All these factors resulted in less bees, or at least less than favorable catching conditions. Regardless, it was still nice to be out in the field and take note of how the prairie was transitioning out of late spring to high summer.

The pre-established sites on the Zumwalt range from Old Prairie (cultivated at some point) or Native Prairie, and Graze (cattle approved), Burn, Both, and Control.  During my first week back in June I noticed little difference in the amount of bees present from site to site, but this past week the differences were stark.  For instance, in regards to bees present, I noticed the most difficultly on recently grazed sites.  At first I thought this might be from the recently disturbed soil, but Katie stated that the soil compaction actually seems to have little effect on the ground nesting bees, so perhaps the flowers the bees favor are now absent.  Many of the invasive annual grasses, like ventenata, where also becoming easier to see.

Our last site for the week proved to be the most fruitful though, we collected all the required specimens and then some in less time than it took to collect even a quarter of the amount at prior sites. Since this week was fairly similar to my first week on the prairie, I’ve decided to include a couple examples of the different forbs we frequently see on the Zumwalt. It’s been interesting to see the colors on Zumwalt shift from purple lupin and yellow cinquefoil to mostly white yarrow and pink fairy in such a short amount of time.  I will continue to showcase a few each week, and will keep it simple by including the scientific name, family, common name and photograph. This next week I will be back in Hermiston pinning many more bees and assisting with data sheets.  And, as an added bonus I added two beautiful insects that Jame’s found while hand netting.

Scientific name: Clarkia pulchella, Family: Onagracea, common name: Pinky fairy, Elkhorns clarkia

Scientific name: Lupinus sp. Family: Fabaceae, common name: lupine (Zumwalt has Lupinus caudatus and Lupinus sericeus present)

Scientific name: Geranium viscosissimum, Family: Geraniaceae, common name: Sticky geranium

Scientific name: Achillea millefolium, Family: Asteracea, common name: yarrow

Scientific name: Erigeron speciosus, Family: Asteraceae, common name: showy daisy

Female Mormon cricket

Male Mormon cricket

Starkey and Hermiston

Bumble bee flying through vetch

My second week was split between Starkey and Hermiston.  I spent the first day with Scott in the Starkey Experimental Forest near La Grande.  I joined him to do timed hand netting on dog woods and hawthorns, where we attempted to collect as many bees as possible within 10 to 15 minutes.  Once collected we then approximated how many flowers were on the shrubs we had just trapped bees on.  One of the shrubs had over 1,000 flowers! I also joined Scott to various sites were he was identifying different willows.  Towards the end of the day we went to see if we could collect bumble bees from Engelmann Spruce.  We ended up collecting quite a few bees, which was surprising.  It was neat to see the bees taking advantage of the spruce instead of flowers.  Scott said that the behavior is not well researched, so I was glad to help him collect specimens. I also saw a ton of vetch, wild  rose, thistle, and (what is perhaps my new favorite flower) elephant head lousewort

Elephanthead lousewort at Starkey Experimental Forest.

My first bee pinned!

The rest of my week was spent at the lab in Hermiston.  While there I learned how to pin bees. Once pinned the bees are eventually sent off to Utah to be identified.  Over the course of the week I organized and pinned several pan traps from Starkey.  The pan traps are the multicolored containers that attract all types of bees, butterflies, flies, spiders, etc.. The insects are stored in a freezer until they are ready to be sorted and pinned.  As such, the first step is to dethaw the insects.  This was done by putting the contents of each pan trap into a mason jar with hot water and some Dawn dish soap.  I then shook the jar to loosen up the mess of insects.  After doing that for about five minutes, I rinsed the contents with more water.  I kept a mesh screen over the jar so none of the insects were lost in the human powered spin cycle.  The next step was to dry the insects, which was simply done with a generic blow drier until all the water is evaporated.  Dr. DeBano said that bumble bees, Bombus, can sometimes only be differentiated by their fur color so it’s critical that they’re completely dried when pinned.  If the bees are wet, or still have soap residue on them, the fur can become matted.

Bi catch from a pan trap before examining all specimens under a microscope.

Once I was confident all the insects were dried I placed them into a petri dish and began sorting out all the bi catch.  It was interesting to see the variety of bees and bi catch per site.  For instance, some batches seemed to only have bumble bees and mosquitoes, while others were full of wasp and sweat bees. A lot of sweat bees look similar to flies, so I ended up using the microscope, and Scott and Dr. Debano, to check.

As far as the actual pinning goes, I had to be careful not to place the pin directly through the thorax, as this will pop the specimen’s head off.  Instead, I placed the pin slightly to the right to protect the bee and to create a uniform look. Once the bees are too small to have a pin placed into them I used nail polish as an adhesive to attach the bees to the side of the pin.  Within the box bees are organized from largest to smallest, and arranged with enough space to keep their wings protected.

Various bees post pinning. They will eventually be shipped to Utah to be identified.

All in all, I ended up pinning several hundred bees over the week.  I was previously studying fine arts in school and have done taxidermy as a hobby, so the pinning felt like a nice blend of my interest.  It was also really helpful to get to look at the bi catch and bees under a microscope. Osmia (mason bees) and Halictidae (sweat bees) were absolutely beautiful. The sweat bees looked almost iridescent under the microscope.  It was an enjoyable week, and I was eager to get the opportunity to examine the bees up close.  On my off days, I’ve already noticed myself spotting more bees than before. This upcoming week I will be back on the Zumwalt Prairie for four days of field work.



First week on the Zumwalt


This is the first of many weekly blog posts that I’ve opted to create for the duration of my summer internship with Oregon State University. Since I will assisting on a few different projects I thought the blog would be the best way to showcase the work that’s being done. Despite the nerves, I’m excited to learn and to share some insight into some of the research being conducted at Hermiston Agriculture Research and Extension Center (HAREC). I’m currently perusing my undergraduate degree in Rangeland Sciences, with a minor in Fish and Wildlife, at the OSU La Grande campus.  I just completed my first year back in school and was ecstatic when I found out that I would be assisting Dr. DeBano on various pollinator studies this summer.  The field work will be split between the Zumwalt Prairie, near Enterprise, and the Starkey Experimental Forest, outside of La Grande, and all of the lab work will be completed in Hermiston.


My first week was spent on the Zumwalt Prairie.  The Zumwalt Prairie is the largest remaining bunchgrass prairie in North America, and as such provides important habitat for various insects, birds, ungulates, smaller mammals such as ground squirrels and badgers, and more recently wolves.  The Zumwalt sits at about 2,000 to 5,500 feet and is bordered by the Imnaha River and Hells Canyon, with the Wallowa Mountains and Seven Devils to the East.  The prairie was historically used by the Nez Perce, and was then used for various grazing operations.  The Nature Conservancy (TNC)eventually purchased 33,000 acres of the prairie, creating the largest private preserve in Oregon.  Today, TNC works in conjunction with local ranchers to implement sustainable agriculture.  The preserve also attracts hunters, birders, and prairie enthusiasts; as the Zumwalt is a mosaic of wildflowers in the spring and early summer.  The preserve also has several historic buildings, including three that were transported to what is referred to as Summer Camp.  In addition to a large barn, Summer Camp is comprised of the School House, Doctor’s Cabin, and the Bunk House, which are used to house employees and researchers.   There are also pre established sites throughout the prairie that have been used for various research projects ranging from: soil, pollinators, biomass, and invasive species.

On my first day we arrived at Summer Camp around noon, and then quickly set up sleeping arrangements; half chose the Bunk House and the rest camped in the back field.  I choose to camp with my terribly cheap tent because I’m stubborn.  We then got straight to field work.  I was assigned to helping Katie collect live bees; with the goal of collecting 15 bees per site.  We also had to use a sterile net each time to eliminate any chance of cross contamination.  She would then take the DNA from the pollen found on each bee and use the data to see what flowers they had visited. This information could then be used for restoration projects in the future.

Hand netting bees felt almost therapeutic.  Standing out in the wild expanse just listening for a certain buzz, and trying to spy on various bees gorging on the forbs, all while the sun was shinning down on me.  I felt like all the work I’d put in to get to that point was worth it.

That being said, there were still a few hurdles to jump. Foremost, the bees aren’t fond of the cold or the wind, so the shifting weather provided some challenges.  Furthermore, while it’s easy to identify a bumble bee, there are a great deal of smaller bees that look remarkably similar to flies.  Despite the difference in pitch, one of the most obvious differences between the two is that bees have four wings, while flies only have two.  Flies also have halteres, which are occasionally visible to the naked eye, but hard to spot while in the field.  Halteres look like little q-tips near the wings and aid in flight rotation. Needless to say, I wasted quite a few nets by mistakenly scooping up flies.  Thankfully, Katie is patient and forgiving.


We collected bees for the majority of the next two days and it was fascinating to see the difference as the time and the weather changed. For instance, in the evening when the temperatures would begin to drop we saw fewer bees, but when we did collect samples they were generally massive bumble bees.  This is in part because the smaller bees don’t tolerate the cold as well as the larger bees.  Furthermore, one of the sites was especially windy, and all of the bees collected were from Arnica sororia.  I wondered if this was due to the flowers disk shape providing shelter from the elements.  As for the other sites, the bees seemed to prefer various types of lupine, Potentilla gracilis, Frasera albicaulis, Geranium viscosissimum, and occasionally Geum triflorum.


The second half of my week was spent collecting pan traps and putting nest boxes out near the aspen stands with Scott.  His work is focused on pollinators and shrubs.  While he also collects bees with hand nets, for this trip he was using pan traps of various colors to collect bees in many of the same pre-established sites as Katie and Dr. DeBano.  The pan traps are either white, yellow, or blue containers, filled with a soapy mixture, as pollinators are attracted to these colors.  The containers are left at the sites for 48 hours and then collected.  The pan traps also attract all types of other insects like flies, butterflies, spiders and mosquitoes.  This bi catch is sorted out in the lab and saved for possible later research on biomass.  Scott and I also hiked up to the aspen stand on Findley Butte Thursday afternoon to place nesting boxes for the season.  These boxes will be collected at the end of the summer to see what pollinators are using them.  The nesting boxes were attached to aspens of different age classes to see if there was variation in preference.


I had a wonderful first week, and I’m eager to go back to the Zumwalt in mid July.  It was great to test my plant taxonomy, and learn a bunch of additional plants.  I’m pretty novice to any insect identification, let alone behavior, so it was equally enjoyable to see what the bees are up too.  The highlight, however, had to be as we were cresting one of the hills on the Salt Road and saw what I thought was a giant german shepherd, which of course ended up being a wolf!  One of the TNC employees had spotted some wolves near the same area only a few weeks earlier too.

The only real low point was when Scott and I got snowed on Thursday morning at our first site.  The snow turned to rain and wind that didn’t let up until the afternoon.  I felt naive to not bring a wider variety of gear; and it just goes to show how dynamic a landscape can be.  We remarkably both ended up with sunburns by the end of the day, as all the weather had cleared. Despite the soggy feet it was still rewarding to not only get to partake in important work, but to do so in such a remarkable landscape.  I’ve always enjoyed wildflowers and love the way the blowing grass mimics ocean waves on a prairie.  The Zumwalt Prairie feels especially unique to me in that it sits so high up and is encircled by such rugged, unforgiving mountains. I felt like I had my own private super bloom on a prairie island.  It truly is a remarkable landscape, and photographs simply don’t do the scale justice.

This next week I will be spending Tuesday in the Starkey Experimental Forest with Scott, and then in the lab in Hermiston learning how to pin bees and sort through all the bi catch.